Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case


Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

BANGLADESH: MUSLIMS THREATEN PASTOR FOR EVANGELIZING


Previously beaten in a mosque, evangelist has faced opposition for more than a year.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, January 6 (Compass Direct News) – The torture and harassment that a Christian pastor in Meherpur district has faced for more than a year loomed anew last month when a 4,000-strong crowd of Muslims celebrating Islam’s largest festival accused him of “misleading” Muslims.

Jhontu Biswas, 31, said residents of Fulbaria town, 270 kilometers (168 miles) west of Dhaka, accused him of misleading Muslims by distributing Christian booklets. They confronted him en masse on Dec. 9 as they gathered for the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival of sacrifice.

“They also accused me of converting poor people by offering money,” said Biswas. “They called several local journalists in that massive assembly to publish news against me and my activities. They took my photograph and interviewed me but did not publish anything in their respective newspapers.”

Biswas denied the accusations against him, and the Muslims threatened to harm him and others who converted from Islam to Christianity, especially in the event of a hard-line Islamic government coming to power following Dec. 29 elections, he said.

“They said, ‘You will be in great trouble at that time,’” Biswas said.

Fortunately for Biswas, the left-leaning Awami League-led Grand Alliance won a landslide victory in the election, and it does not include Islamic fundamentalist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Prior to Bangladesh’s national election on Dec. 29, the country was ruled for two years by an army-backed, caretaker government that imposed a countrywide state of emergency.

Had the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party coalition government including Jamaat-e-Islami come to power, area Christians said they would be in even greater danger.

“We hope that we can work our religious activities properly during the tenure of this government, and also hope that this government will ensure all of our constitutional rights regarding religious activities,” Biswas said.

 

Beaten in Mosque

The pastor has been under continuous pressure to give up his faith and not spread Christianity since he was baptized on Feb. 14, 2007, he said. He was in a meeting with members of his church on Dec. 31, 2007, he said, when police suddenly surrounded the building and dragged him out.

A drug peddler, a 36-year-old woman named Fulwara Begum, had left a bag full of illegal drugs behind his church in accordance with a plan hatched by area Muslims, he said. They informed police, and officers arrested him for drug possession and sale – but instead of taking him to the police station, they took him to a nearby mosque.

“It was a trick to arrest me and slander my reputation so that I cannot do evangelical activities here,” said Biswas. “They told me, ‘If you accept Islam after confessing to Christianity and ask forgiveness of Allah, we will not do anything against you and release you.’ They beat me with sticks in the mosque after my vehement denial to their proposal.”

Police called on a Muslim cleric to encourage Biswas to seek forgiveness for embracing Christianity.

The following day, Jan. 1, 2008, police sent him to Meherpur central jail on drug charges, but the jailer would not admit him because of his battered condition. Police took him to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for five to six hours. He was subsequently put into jail.

“Whenever I did not agree with them, police beat me inhumanely in the police station,” he said. “They tried to brainwash me into accepting Islam throughout almost the whole night. But I did not agree with them. Then they tortured me.”

After 20 days in jail, Biswas was released on bail.

 

Elderly Shop Owner Struck

On Aug. 16, Muslim extremists had vandalized a grocery store near Biswas’ church. The 78-year-old owner of the shop, Abdus Sobhan, told Compass that he was beaten and his shop was looted. They also hurled stones and bricks at the nearby church.

“My angry Muslim neighbors did it,” Sobhan said. “Around seven to eight people came on that night and vandalized the shop. I am a poor man. That shop was my only source of living. They demolished it and looted stuffs of around 30,000 taka [US$443].”

Area Muslims put a sign near the shop that designated it as that of a Christian and stating, “Do not buy anything from here.”

Sobhan went to police to file a case. Instead, officers asked him barrage of questions about why he became a Christian. Resigned, he left the police station.

The father of nine daughters and two sons, Sobhan said he became a Christian on Feb. 24, 2007 along with his wife.

The president of the Assembly of God church in southern Khulna division, Jonathan Litu Munshi, told Compass that Biswas was the first Christian in the area. Through him 200 to 230 people have received Christ as their redeemer in the predominantly Muslim area within the past year and a half.

“Local people filed a false case against him to torture him so that he does not continue his religious activities,” said Munshi. “Unfortunately a septuagenarian convert was also beaten in that area for his faith in Christ.”

The Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami is influencing the area residents, Christians said, adding that party workers have persuaded Muslims not to hire Christian converts, who are largely day-laborers eking out a living.  

Report from Compass Direct News

VIETNAM: ATTACK ON CATHOLIC CHAPEL SHOWS AUTHORITIES’ FEAR OF RELIGION


On same day, Mennonite denomination receives legal recognition; pastors wary.

LOS ANGELES, November 20 (Compass Direct News) – At a chapel on the remaining patch of Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi that the Vietnamese government had yet to confiscate, at 10 p.m. on Saturday night (Nov. 15) an official came to summon the priests to an “urgent meeting.” According to Vietcatholic.net website and other church sources, it proved to be a ruse to draw them away from the property while government-inspired gangs attacked St. Gerardo Chapel.

As the gangs ravaged the chapel, Father Joseph Dinh told Independent Catholic News, some people at the church began ringing the church bells to signal for help while others sent urgent e-mail and text messages asking Catholics to defend it.

Hundreds of police with stun guns tried to keep the arriving faithful from entering the chapel to stop the destruction. The hundreds of Catholics who arrived eventually overwhelmed officers, going past police to scare off the attackers. Witnesses reportedly said that government, police and security officials had stood by doing nothing to protect the chapel.

They also said that fleeing gang members shouted obscenities threatening to kill the priests and the faithful, as well as the archbishop.

“It is significant that the government attack against the monastery came on the eve of the celebration of the Feast of Vietnamese Martyrs,” a local priest told Vietcatholic.net. “This attack reminds people that since the outset, the seed of faith in Vietnam’s soil was mixed with the abundant blood of Catholic martyrs from all walks of life – from courageous missionaries to local clergy and the Christian faithful.”

The priest concluded by decrying the deterioration of conditions for Vietnamese Catholics.

A government spokesman later denied that the Vietnamese forces or authorities were involved in the attack.

As the government had achieved its objective of taking over the contested land, the well-coordinated attack came as a surprise to many. In September, Vietnam had resorted to force to answer months of growing but peaceful prayer vigils over long-confiscated Catholic properties in Hanoi, reneging on a promise to negotiate a settlement. Unilaterally, the government quickly turned the papal nunciature and the rest of the Thai Ha Redemptorist property into public parks.

The solidarity demonstrated by Catholics throughout the country appeared to have alarmed authorities. They reverted to classic attacks of disinformation and slander against Catholic leaders, and even after they had halted the prayer vigils, taken the contested land and allowed previous gangs to ransack the Redemptorist chapel, authorities demanded the removal of the archbishop of Hanoi, Ngo Quang Kiet, whom they accused of inciting riots against the state.

A Protestant pastor in Hanoi said the government’s recent conflict with Catholics has had a ripple affect on other churches and religions.

“Though it is the Catholics who are being most lambasted in the state media, Protestants are also maligned along with Catholics by government propaganda,” he said. “Secondly, all religious leaders are again subject to closer surveillance.”

 

Mennonite Church Recognized

Ironically, only a few hours earlier on the same day the chapel was attacked, the Vietnam Mennonite Church was allowed to hold its organizing general assembly in Ho Chi Minh City, becoming the fifth smaller church body to receive full legal recognition in 2008.

While registration can mark an improvement in the way the government treats a church, it is not to be confused with full religious freedom, church leaders said, as it is sometimes used as a means of control. The dubious benefits of registration have led many Protestant groups to simply quit seeking it.

Other Protestant groups to receive legal recognition in 2008 were the Grace Baptist Church, the Vietnam Presbyterian Church, the Vietnam Baptist Church, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This brought the total number of fully recognized Protestant denominations to eight. Two of the eight bodies, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), received legal recognition before the new religion legislation initiated in late 2004.

None of the 24 house church organizations of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), however, has received even the lower-level “national registration to carry out religious activity.” Only one in seven of its congregations even have permission to operate locally.

Of the total 2,148 VEF congregations, 1,498 have applied for local permission to carry out religious activity, but only 334 have received it. Another house church organization has had 80 congregations apply for local permission to operate and has received only refusals or no answer at all. Other groups report a similar experience.

A hint of the government’s attitude toward registered churches, pastors said, was evident in its official news release on the Vietnam Mennonite Church general assembly. The Vietnam News Agency release of Nov. 15 enjoining the church to “serve both God and the nation” and to “unite with other people in the course of national reconstruction” struck some church leaders as an expectation that their congregations will serve political ends.

Christian leaders detected government fear of churches’ international connections in the official claim that, “For more than three decades, the Vietnam Mennonite Church has operated independently from foreign Mennonite churches.”

As is customary, the ceremony included an address by a representative of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. Nguyen Thanh Xuan said he expects the Mennonite Church “to bring into full play good characteristics of Protestantism, uphold the tradition of charity, and join hands with other religious and non-religious people to build a country of stability and prosperity.”

The heavy-handed treatment of Catholics over the disputed property and the offering of legal registration to more Protestant groups does not present the contrast it may first appear, said one long-time observer.

“Catholics outnumber Protestants about five to one and are a much more formidable and unified organization than Vietnam’s fractured Protestants,” he said. “Alarmed at the largest countrywide Catholic solidarity ever demonstrated, nonplussed security authorities ordered a classic, harsh crackdown and incited ‘punishment’ disguised as citizens’ outrage.”

Protestants, he said, are less numerous, more divided and rarely capable of joint action, so they do not pose a serious threat.

“For example, the oft-repeated requests and ultimatums by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on their 265 confiscated properties are simply ignored,” he said. “And don’t forget that the majority of Protestants are ethnic minorities in remote areas who remain closely watched by the government.”  

Report from Compass Direct News